Three months ago, on Feb. 14, I stood at the center of the Capitol rotunda, thoroughly unconvinced by the promises of a few TAA activists that "a significant crowd" was imminent. The sight of 1000 students, faculty and staff that flooded the building minutes later blew me away at the time. As I learned in the days that followed, and was reminded again today as I saw tens of thousands surrounding the Capitol, that event was but a quaint preview to perhaps the largest grassroots political movement in state history.
The scene today closely resembled that of the previous protests of the past three months. A sea of blue and red "Stand With Wisconsin" signs greeted incoming pedestrians from State St. Thousands of protestors carrying signs, many wearing union garb, milled around the square. A large procession, lead by a group of firefighters, marched around the Capitol.
Although the threat of heavy rain was certainly present, it never amounted to more than a very light drizzle, and the crowd was undeterred.
The recall elections were a big theme today. Kory Kozlowski, of the State Senate Democratic Committee, was holding one side of a large banner that read, "Recall Them All." Another woman was gathering urging people to sign a pledge to recall Gov. Walker, who cannot be recalled until after one year in office.
The steps of the Capitol were packed with people listening to speakers from a stage. Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt introduced State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), who urged the crowd to spend time helping Democrats win back the Senate via recall elections.
"This is the last time I want to see you in Madison," he said. "You can go vacation in Minocqua and help out Jim Holperin...or La Crosse, which is beautiful right now, and help out Jen Shilling."
After Erpenbach came Ben Manski, the former Green Party Assembly candidate and progressive activist, guns-a-blazin'. Manski said the state budget was designed in backrooms by Republicans and corporate lobbyists "to tax the poor to feed the rich."
"We reject your budget!" he cried over and over again. The crowd began chanting along.
Many other prominent activists and politicians were on scene who weren't speaking. I spotted Rep. Mark Pocan, Sups. Dianne Hesselbein and Melissa Sargent, WTDY personality Sly Sylvester, and 48th district Assembly candidate Andy Heidt, who is running in a race (whose date is yet-to-be-determined) to fill the seat vacated by Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.
Heidt, who works in human services for the county and is the head of AFSCME local 1871, was bearing a sign that read, "Don't let Wisconsin become Karl Rove's laboratory for plutocracy."
Nearby, Dennis Coyier was selling a wide variety of political buttons for $2. The messages ranged from the cynical, "Walker snorts Koch," to the hopeful, "Feingold for Governor." Coyier, who has been making buttons since the beginning of the Bush administration ("I probably have about 300 anti-Bush buttons"), says the most popular button was the one bearing the now-famous slogan, "This is what democracy looks like."
As always, the spotlight shone brightly on the kilt-wearing firefighters, whose union leadership has been vociferous in its opposition to the governor, despite the exemptions carved out for firefighters and cops in the collective bargaining bill. The firefighters have also taken the lead in boycotting businesses that supported Walker, such as M&I Bank.
A much smaller crowd represented the Dane County Sheriff's Deputies Association, which has a tendency to back conservative candidates in local races. Kevin Hughes, who has been a deputy for 33 years, dismissed the governor's exemptions for law enforcement as a strategy of "divide and conquer."
"The attitude from the get-go was that what [Walker] was doing was wrong, and rather than sit back we decided to get involved," he said. Hughes also said his perception of Rep. Brett Hulsey, who clashed with the deputies during his time on the County Board, has also changed for the better.
"I'm proud of him doing what he's doing," he said.
Mary Bell, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, summed up the spirit and significance of the event well. "We are still here and we are waiting to be heard," she said, her voice booming over the Capitol lawn. "They were convinced you would go home and watch Dancing with the Stars and forget about the biggest power-grab in state history."
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